King of Angels – Perry Brass (Belhue Press)

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Buy it now from Amazon.com

Perry Brass belongs to that rarified group of writers
including myself and Leslea Newman (Heather
Has Two Mommies)
who have been nominated for five or more Lambda Literary
Awards and never received a single one.

That all three of us work in different literary forms and
genres is a given. We write prose, poetry, drama, non-fiction, even children’s
books. Literary judges, unable to look beyond the page in front of them, don’t
know what to make of us. Up till now, Brass has written science fiction,
religious fiction, erotica, you name it. With King of Angels, however, Brass has finally written a more or less
acceptable piece of “literature”—although it’s actually more than that—and the
book is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award* and who knows what other honors
may fall upon it. 

Why? Simply because it’s a growing up and coming out story.
Everyone knows what to make of one of those, right? Except that Brass spins
several variations on the theme that makes it increasingly, excitingly, odd.
The little boy protagonist is growing up in a good-sized town in the South. His
mother is a Gentile, gentle, Southern, almost sophisticated woman of her
generation. But his father is a Northener and a Jew, handsome and somewhat
suspect, who travels a great deal, and whose sources of income are unclear,
uncertain, and eventually even criminally prosecutable. This, naturally, makes
Benjy a most interesting misfit, even amid the small, ingrown Jewish community
in his town.

To make it all even more complex, his father places the boy
into a Catholic Academy for his middle years, saying it’s the only superior
school around. So Benjy’s life becomes even more splintered, and he is a
complete outsider, even more so than the one beautiful and doomed Puerto Rican
scholarship boy in his class. His most natural mentors are grown Christian
religious teachers, and or his father and his father’s best friend Solly. But
the teacher is questioning his faith, and the adult friend is even more suspect
than dad and probably a betrayer too.

Let’s hear it for Benjy: he goes through all of the expected
tropes of growing up, being a boy who is becoming a man, finding himself
academically, physically, sexually, and he does so with curiosity, panache, and
a refreshing sense of his own self esteem. Along the way as tragedy occurs and
near-tragedies mount up, Benjy also develops a strong sense of self
preservation, along with a slow-growing conviction—as every adult fails
him—that he can only rely upon himself.        

The reader is quite entertained by all of this: not only
with all the contradictions and mix-ups natural to such an individual, but also
by the way Brass delineates several small, often opposite, families and
societies that Benjy falls into and out of. 
The Catholic kids are, for the most part, put upon, hassled, and
controlled to within an inch of their lives, but then strangely free in many
other respects. So it’s no wonder that they act out in bullying, aggression,
and other boy-on-boy mishaps. But the Jewish kids Benjy hangs out with are
portrayed as spoiled and smug and they utterly lack independence. His one wiser
older cousin who refuses to conform ends up in and out of institutions. By the
way, each child is wonderfully characterized, even the girls Benjy is expected
to romance are well (and humorously) individualized.

That would be enough to make King of Angels a good book. But lurking beneath this veneer, Brass
uses his novel to ask a variety of questions about how children see the world
for themselves and eventually how they make various choices—despite parents,
despite teachers, despite society, despite religious teaching, and despite each
other. That has been for decades how almost all LGBT kids grew up in America,
and I applaud Brass for making his Benjy such a little mensch. King of Angels is
a sobering, truthful, yet subversive text and Perry Brass’ most accomplished
work.

* Editor’s Note: Trebor Healey won the 2013 Ferro-Grumley
Award for “A Horse Named Sorrow.”

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©, 2013, Felice
Picano

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